Rush-That-Speaks (rushthatspeaks) wrote,
Rush-That-Speaks
rushthatspeaks

Memoir and Honesty

I find, from multiple sources, that today two memoirists have been revealed as frauds; that is, they did not slightly fictionalize their books, and did not have details slip due to faulty memory, but deliberately assumed past lives they did not have and spoke about events that never happened in any way.

One of these writers was writing about life as a drug-running gang member in South Central L.A., and one was writing about surviving the Holocaust by being taken in by one of the last surviving packs of free-ranging wolves in Europe.

Now, I am going to assume (or at any rate devoutly hope) that everyone reading this takes this to be a wrong thing, a dishonest thing, an appropriation of the space so badly needed for people who have actually experienced things such as this to speak, an appropriation of those people's voices, and a perversion of the art of the memoir.

The question is, why? Why would somebody do that?

I am going to quote Ursula Le Guin, because I thought of this quote immediately when I first read about this, and have had it in mind ever since. In the essay 'The Question I Get Asked Most Often', in the collection The Wave in the Mind, she says: "Aspiring writers keep telling me they'll start writing when they've gathered experience. Usually I keep my mouth shut, but sometimes I can't control myself and ask them, ah, like Jane Austen? Like the Bronte sisters? Those women with their wild, mad lives cram full of gut-wrenching adventure working as stevedores in the Congo and shooting up drugs in Rio and hunting lions on Kilimanjaro and having sex in SoHo and all the stuff that writers have to do-- well, that some writers have to do?"

The point being of course that you can have the most interesting life in the history of humanity and still be a dull read, or you can have a by all accounts short and rather physically dull and uncomfortable sort of life and turn out to be Emily Bronte; but this is not the truth the aspiring writers who speak to Le Guin are operating off, because what they are operating off is a different truth, one that is easy to interpret falsely: you must write what you know.

And it is significant, I think, that these anonymous aspiring writers are operating off that idea-- that they must write what they know and that this involves having a lot of varied and objectively interesting life experiences-- in an essay called 'The Question I Get Asked Most Often', because, as everybody knows, the question she gets asked most often is "Where do you get your ideas from?"

Nobody asks "How do you make your ideas?", which is a different question entirely. And the people who are asking 'Where from?' can become quite disturbed if you sit them down and gently explain that you sat down and made everything up. A lot of people don't want to admit to the human capacity to sit down and make things up; you can see this all the time in the kind of biographical criticism which desperately searches famous authors' childhoods for their characters (a kind of criticism that tends to fail to cope with fantasy at all).

So here the aspiring writer is, thinking that ideas come from somewhere, that, in fact, ideas come from experience, that they must write what they know; and some of them fall into the trap that not having 'been anywhere interesting', or 'done anything important', they therefore do not know anything, and therefore cannot write.

But they want to write. Or (and this can be tragic) must write.

So, in these cases, they fake the experience that would give them the ideas they think are appropriate and interesting to write about.

Now, if the result came out as fiction, and was labeled as such, people might-- might-- occasionally let this slide. I read some work by J.T. LeRoy years before the author's actual identity was revealed, and I read it without there being any notes on the author's putative biography attached to it, and it was fine fiction, memorable and skilful, and represented as fiction in that anthology. It stood on its own. It's a pity she felt she had to lie to support it, but the lie was not in her work, or at least not in all of it.

But the thing is, it's a lot harder to lie in fiction and be believed. Seriously, would you read a novel about a girl rescued from the Holocaust by a pack of wolves? I believe in fanfiction we call that a tasteless Mary Sue wish-fulfillment fantasy. It could be done brilliantly, because you can make a great novel out of anything, but it would have to be done absolutely brilliantly, and even then people would go around saying to each other 'You should read this book! It's amazing! I, uh, well, the premise sounds kind of stupid, just go read it, okay?'. And with the gang thing, if it were a novel, you know people would write in to her and say things like 'Mailboxes are not that color in that neighborhood', because that is what people do, and hard-sf writers are always finding that people do this about things you'd assume only three people on the planet actually know anything about.

But if you were there, then you were there, right? So people will accept what you say, no matter how peculiar, because hey, you were there. rachelmanija was saying earlier that she worked for a producer who optioned the Holocaust one, and it never occurred to anyone to doubt it, because real Holocaust survival stories are always incredibly improbable. Truth is, in fact, stranger than fiction.

Which means that these writers are using everyone's belief in their experiences to prove, to themselves and to the world, that they Had Experiences, that they Know Something, something special enough to write about. When they asked the woman who wrote the Holocaust one about it, she said that "in her reality" this happened.

Think about that. This is a woman who wants to be a Holocaust survivor rescued by a pack of wolves.

Now, I don't know what happened to her in the war. Maybe the pack of wolves would have been better; I don't know what she isn't writing about; maybe this is tragedy as well as dishonesty. But whatever her experience, her personal experience, the thing she knows, she finds it so dull, painful, unacceptable, or generally untrustworthy that she requires the validation of the entire world so that she can believe that her experience was something different.

You're never going to get to be Emily Bronte that way.
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